Welcome to The Environmental Analyst

Welcome to The Environmental Analyst, a blog dedicated to examining environmental problems of the day through the lens of environmental science. Subjects here are carefully researched and documented, and conclusions are drawn from the facts. I try to avoid writing simply to vent my feelings — for that, I maintain a separate blog, An Environmental Viewpoint, which you can read by clicking here.

Posts don’t appear very often here. They are usually thoroughly researched, written, revised, edited multiple times, and often documented with extensive footnotes, all of which are time consuming. The result is a blog that grows slowly but is more informative and I think harder to argue with. Please judge for yourself.

The best way to read my blog is to select one of the topics listed below and click on it, which will display the first post in the topic. Above each post heading are the navigation arrows. The right arrow (→) will carry you to the next post; the left arrow (←) will take you to the previous post. You can also read the blog by simply scrolling down, in which case you will encounter the posts in the reverse order they were posted, latest post first. To return to the home page at any time, click on the Home tab at the top of the page.

Please feel free to comment on any post. I can’t promise I’ll publish them, though; any comment must meet my standards of civility and good sense. But I welcome a good argument and I urge those who disagree with me to explain why they do so. I am not always right — far from it — and I welcome a good correction.

I hope you find this blog interesting and informative. If you wish, you can reach me by email at mhkblogs@gmail.com . Thanks for visiting!

Blog News

July 2014

I just changed the URL of this blog from environmental-essays.net to environmental-analyst.net, to reflect its new name (the old name was Michael Klein’s Environmental Essays). This should make the URL a little easier to remember.

In anticipation of my foray into climate change, I’m writing a physics primer summarizing the scientific concepts I hope to discuss in my blog. I’ve finished the first six posts on the nature of matter. Please take a look and tell me what you think by clicking here.

Current List of Topics

Please click on a topic, else scroll down to read all posts in reverse chronological order.

EPA’s New Ozone Rule

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sought to lower the maximum concentration of ground-level ozone to 70 parts per billion, then on orders from the Obama Administration rescinded its rule. Was it wise in doing so?

Gun Homicides vs. Gun Ownership

Do rates of gun homicide in the various states correlate to rates of gun ownership? If so, is there anything to be learned?

Should the Wolf be Removed from the Endangered Species List?

In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing the gray wolf from the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Should it do so?

A Physics Primer

A series of posts summarizing the scientific principles I think is important to understand environmental science. If I did my job well. this topic should be strictly non-partisan. As of July, I have six posts discussing the scientific principles behind the existence of matter.

A Physics Primer 6: Chemical Formulas and Equations

In chemistry, every element is represented by a one- or two-letter symbol1. The first letter is always capitalized, the second is in small case. You can find the symbols listed in a periodic table, a chart which lists the chemical elements in order of atomic number in such a way that related elements appear in the same columns (that statement is oversimplified, but it will have to do for now)2. There are many periodic tables available on the Web, but the one I suggest you take a look at first is Michael Dayah’s Dynamic Periodic Table, which you can view by clicking here. Note that you can amplify the information on any element by moving your cursor over it.

As you can see, most symbols are abbreviations of the element’s name: H for hydrogen, O for oxygen, Cl for Chlorine, and so forth. But quite a few symbols are not that way: Fe for iron, Ag for silver, Au for gold, for example. When I was younger, I wondered why that was. Why not use Ir for iron, Sv for silver, and Gl for gold? Then it dawned on me — not every chemist is an American who speaks English. Most of the elements that have funny symbols have been known to mankind for a very long time, and different languages have different words for these elements. “Iron” is fer in French, hierro in Spanish, Eisen in German, zhyelyezo in Russian, and barzel in Hebrew. Which language should we use for the symbol? It made sense to choose a classical language that is universally recognized but no longer spoken, and in Latin the word for “iron” is ferrum. That is why the chemical symbol for iron is Fe3.

Here are the more common symbols you are likely to encounter in chemical formulas, at least in this blog, ordered by atomic number.4:

Symbol Atomic
Element Average Atomic Mass
(see note below this chart)
H 1 Hydrogen 1.01
B 5 Boron 10.81
C 6 Carbon 12.01
N 7 Nitrogen 14.01
O 8 Oxygen 16.00
F 9 Fluorine 19.00
Na 11 Sodium 23.99
Mg 12 Magnesium 24.31
Al 13 Aluminum 26.98
Si 14 Silicon 28.09
P 15 Phosphorus 30.97
S 16 Sulfur 32.06
Cl 17 Chlorine 35.45
K 19 Potassium 39.10
Ca 20 Calcium 40.08
Mn 25 Manganese 54.94
Fe 26 Iron 55.85
Co 27 Cobalt 58.93
Ni 28 Nickel 58.69
Cu 29 Copper 63.55
Zn 30 Zinc 65.38
As 33 Arsenic 74.92
Ag 46 Silver 107.87
Sn 50 Tin 118.71
I 53 Iodine 126.90
W 74 Tungsten 183.84
Pt 78 Platinum 195.08
Au 79 Gold 196.96
Hg 80 Mercury 200.59
Pb 82 Lead 207.25
U 92 Uranium 238.02
Pu 94 Plutonium 2446

Note: Average atomic mass refers to the average mass of all atoms of that element found in nature, measured in daltons. It is numerically equal to the molar mass of the element as measured in grams per mole.

Using the element symbols, we can then represent chemicals with a shorthand notation called a chemical formula7. Each element that makes up the chemical is represented by its symbol in the periodic table. If two or more atoms of the same element make up the chemical, the number of atoms appears as a subscript following the symbol.

Let’s start by showing how molecules are represented by formulas. The formula shows how many atoms of each element make up the molecule. Hydrogen molecules consist of two hydrogen (H) atoms each, so the chemical formula for hydrogen gas is8:


Water molecules consist of two hydrogen atoms attached to an oxygen (O) atom, so its formula is the familiar9:


A common form of gasoline is octane, whose molecule consists of a chain of eight carbon (C) atoms surrounded by 16 hydrogen atoms. Its formula is10:


Chemical formulas can also represent ionic compounds. Here the formula doesn’t describe a molecule, but rather the proportion that each element appears in the compound. By convention, cations always appear before anions. In a previous post, we encountered a chemical called calcium chloride, which consists of two chlorine (Cl) anions for every calcium (Ca) cation. Its chemical formula is11:


In a previous post, we discussed how molecules can form parts of larger compounds, either as polyatomic ions or as functional groups of larger organic (carbon-based) molecules. When we write a formula for a compound having polyatomic ions or functional groups, we want the formula to show these groups. For example, we came across the compound ammonium nitrate, which consists of two nitrogen (N) atoms, three oxygen atoms, and four hydrogen atoms12. One might think that its formula should be written:


but that would obscure the fact that ammonium nitrate is made of two polyatomic ions:

  • The ammonium cation, which is a molecule consisting of a nitrogen atom with four hydrogen atoms attached. Its chemical formula is NH4.
  • The nitrate anion, which is a molecule consisting of a nitrogen atom with three oxygen atoms attached. Its chemical formula is NO3

That is why the accepted formula for ammonium nitrate is12:


As you can see, the formula for ammonium nitrate simply puts the formulas for the ions together. The ratio between ammonium and nitrate ions is 1:1.

Acetic acid is the main component of vinegar. Its molecule consists of two carbon atoms, four hydrogen atoms, and two oxygen atoms. As such, its formula is commonly given as13:


But this formula obscures an important part of the acetic acid molecule, the carboxyl group COOH. To show the carboxyl group, its formula is frequently written as14:


(You may ask why I did not represent the carboxyl group as CO2H, although I’ve seen that notation as well. The COOH formula emphasizes that the carbon atom [C] is bonded to an oxygen atom [O] and to a hydroxyl group [OH]15.)

Just like elements can appear more than once in a chemical formula, so can polyatomic ions and functional groups. When this happens, the group is enclosed in parentheses. Calcium hypochlorite is a compound used in sanitizing swimming pools. It consists of two ions: the calcium cation (an element, symbol Ca) and the hypochlorite anion (a molecule consisting of a chlorine atom attached to an oxygen atom, formula ClO). There are twice as many hypochlorite ions as calcium ions, therefore the formula is16:


Chemical formulas are used in describing chemical reactions, in which a chemical breaks up into simpler chemicals, or two or more chemicals recombine into new chemicals. We can represent chemical reactions with a notation called a chemical equation. On the left side are the formulas for the chemical or chemicals that start the reaction, on the right side are the symbols for the product or products of the reaction. Plus signs (+) connect the compounds on either side of the equation. Separating the two sides in the middle is a right arrow (→) showing the direction of the reaction17. There must be as many atoms of each element on the right side of the equation as there are on the left side.18

For example, carbon burns in the presence of oxygen to form the compound carbon dioxide. This is how we represent the reaction with a chemical equation19:

C + O2 → CO2

A chemical equation can be read in two ways. First, it can show how various atoms, ions, molecules, and functional groups combine and separate to form new molecules and ionic compounds. Second, it specifies the proportions that amounts of chemicals react with each other as measured in moles. By knowing the molar mass of each substance, you can then calculate the masses of the reacting substances and their products20. Bear in mind that the molar mass of a homogeneous chemical is equal to the sum of the molar masses of the elements in the proportions that make it up21.

There are two ways to read the equation above describing carbon combining with oxygen:

  1. One atom of carbon combines with the two atoms in an oxygen molecule to form one carbon dioxide molecule.
  2. One mole of carbon (12 grams) combines with one mole of oxygen gas (32 grams) to form one mole of carbon dioxide (44 grams).

Here’s what happens when hydrogen and oxygen gas combine to form water22:

2H2 + O2 → 2H2O

Again, you can read this equation in two ways:

  1. Two molecules of hydrogen gas combine with one molecule of oxygen gas to form two molecules of water. Note that the same numbers of atoms of both elements appear on both sides of the equation: four hydrogen atoms and two oxygen atoms.
  2. Two moles of hydrogen gas (4 grams) combine with one mole of oxygen gas (32 grams) to form two moles of water (36 grams).

Chemical equations can also describe ionic reactions. Sodium metal will combine with chlorine gas to form table salt23:

2Na + Cl2 → 2NaCl

Two atoms of sodium metal will react with one molecule of chlorine gas to form table salt. Note that the formula 2NaCl does not represent two molecules since table salt is an ionic compound. The "2" is necessary to keep the number of atoms on each side of equation balanced.

But the second way to read the equation is that two moles of sodium (46 grams) combine with one mole of chlorine gas (about 71 grams) to form two moles of table salt (117 grams). Here the need for the "2" is more obvious.

Finally, polyatomic ions and functional groups can be represented in chemical equations. Calcium hypochlorite is made by mixing calcium hydroxide (hydroxide is a polyatomic anion) with chlorine gas24:

2Ca(OH)2 + 2Cl2 → Ca(ClO)2 + CaCl2 + 2H2O

Two calcium cations and four hydroxide anions react with two chlorine gas molecules to form the ionic compounds calcium hypochlorite and calcium chloride, plus two molecules of water.

Alternatively, two moles of calcium hydroxide (148 grams) combine with two moles of chlorine gas (142 grams) to form one mole of calcium hypochlorite (143 grams), one mole of calcium chloride (111 grams), and two moles of water (36 grams).

In the next post, we will discuss the nature of energy.


  1. Strictly speaking, there are elements with three-letter abbreviations, but they are all newly discovered elements with half-lives too short to be of any practical value.
  2. Freudenrich, Craig, How the Periodic Table Works. HowStuffWorks website. To view, click here. See also Western Oregon University website. A Brief History of the Development of the Periodic Table. To view, click here. See also the American Institute of Physics website, Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity: The Periodic Table of the Elements. To view, click here. I discovered a very entertaining periodic table on the web. Gray, Theodore and Whitby, Max. Photographic Periodic Table of the Elements. To view, click here.
  3. Our modern system of chemical symbols was invented by the Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779 – 1848). van der Krogt, Peter, Development of the chemical symbols and the Periodic Table, on Mr. van der Krogt’s personal website. To view, click here.
  4. Information taken from Michael Dayah’s Dynamic Periodic Table, which you can view by clicking here.
  5. Lead is the only element in this list that I could not find an average atomic mass accurate to two decimal places. All the sources I looked up listed the average atomic mass of lead as 207.2 daltons. I wonder why.
  6. This is not the average atomic mass of plutonium but the mass of its longest-lived isotope. This is because plutonium is not found in nature but only manufactured in nuclear reactors, so it can’t have an average mass of all its atoms found in nature.
  7. NDT Resource Center website (operated by the Collaboration for Nondestructive Testing Education). Chemical Formula. To view, click here. For a more in-depth explanation of chemical formulas, see the Washington University at St. Louis website, Chemical Formulas. To view, click here.
  8. The Chemical formula website. Hydrogen. To view, click here.
  9. The Chemical formula website. Water, H2O. To view, click here.
  10. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, About.com Chemistry website. Octane Chemical Structure. To view, click here.
  11. This is the formula for anhydrous calcium chloride, calcium chloride that has not absorbed water into its crystal structure. National Institute of Health’s PubChem website. Calcium chloride anhydrous. To view, click here.
  12. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, About.com Chemistry website. Ammonium nitrate. To view, click here.
  13. National Institute of Health’s PubChem website. Acetic Acid. To view, click here.
  14. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, About.com Chemistry website. Vinegar Chemical Formula. To view, click here.
  15. Pearson Prentice Hall website.Concept 6 Review: The Carboxyl Group. To view, click here. Also, see the U.S. Department of Energy’s NEWTON: Ask a Scientist! website. Acetic Acid CH3C00H not C2H4O2. To view, click here.
  16. Dictionary.com website. Calcium Hypochlorite. To view, click here. Note that their formula slightly varies from ours in that it shows the hypochlorite anion as OCl rather than ClO: Ca(OCL)2.
  17. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, About.com website. What is a Chemical Equation?. To view, click here.
  18. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, About.com website. Balancing Chemical Equations. To view, click here. The art of balancing chemical equations is called stoichiometry. See also the Purdue University Bodner Research Web website, Balancing Chemical Equations. To view, click here.
  19. University College Cork website. Combustion of Carbon. To view, click here.
  20. This follows from the definition of molar mass. The molar mass is the amount of grams in every mole. If you know how many moles of the substance you have, you just multiply by the molar mass to get the mass in grams. Similarly, if you have a known mass in grams of a certain substance and you know its molar mass, divide the mass by the molar mass to get the number of moles.
  21. This also follows from the definition of molar mass. One mole of a substance has as much mass in grams as a molecule of the substance has in daltons (for ionic compounds, treat the proportion of ions as reflected in its chemical formula as if it were a molecule. For example, calcium chloride is CaCl2). But the mass of a molecule is equal to the sum of the masses of atoms that make it up. Therefore, the molar mass of the substance must equal the sum of the molar masses of the elements in the proportions that they appear in the molecule. In our example, the molar mass of calcium chloride is equal to the molar mass of calcium plus twice the molar mass of chlorine.
  22. Purdue University Bodner Research Web website. Chemical Equations. To view, click here.
  23. Angelo State University website. Sodium + Chlorine: Pass the Salt, Please. To view, click here.
  24. Wikipedia. Calcium Hypochlorite To view, click here.

A Physics Primer 5: Atomic and Molecular Mass

Every atom has a mass measured in daltons (also called unified atomic mass units, abbreviated as amu or just u1). Protons and neutrons each have about the same mass equal to about one dalton2. Therefore, the mass of an atom is the sum of its protons and neutrons, called its mass number3. Most hydrogen nuclei consist of a lone proton, so the atomic mass of most hydrogen atoms is 1 dalton. Most helium nuclei have two protons and two neutrons, so the atomic mass of most helium atoms is 4 daltons. Most iron nuclei have 26 protons and 30 neutrons, so the atomic mass of most iron atoms is 56 daltons.

While the atoms of any one element all have the same number of protons, the number of neutrons can differ. Each possible number of neutrons in a particular element’s nucleus is called an isotope of that element4. Hydrogen has three isotopes:

  • regular hydrogen with no neutrons (1 dalton)
  • deuterium having one neutron (2 daltons)
  • tritium with two neutrons (3 daltons)4

The isotopes of hydrogen have individual names, hydrogen, deuterium, and tritium. When distinguishing among isotopes of all other elements, it is common practice to write the mass number after the name of the element. Oxygen has three isotopes:

  • oxygen 16 with eight neutrons (16 daltons)
  • oxygen 17 with nine neutrons (17 daltons)
  • oxygen 18 with ten neutrons (18 daltons)5

The two most prominent isotopes of uranium are uranium 238 and uranium 235. Uranium 238, with 146 neutrons, is by far the more common isotope. But only uranium 235, with 143 neutrons in its nucleus, can undergo fission and produce nuclear energy6.

Periodic tables list the average atomic mass of each element. This is a weighted average of the masses of all the isotopes for that element as they appear in nature. If an element has three isotopes with atomic masses A, B, and C, and isotope A appears p% of the time, isotope B appears q% of the time, and isotope C appears r% of the time (p + q + r = 100%), then the average atomic mass of the element is7:

pA/100 + qB/100 + rC/100

For example, chlorine has two isotopes: 76% of all chlorine atoms and ions in nature are chlorine 35, but 24% are chlorine 37. The average atomic mass of chlorine is:

(.76)(35 daltons) + (.24)(37 daltons)

which gives an average atomic weight of 35.48 daltons for chlorine. (Actually, the real average atomic weight is 35.45 daltons, the difference being due to imprecision in the atomic mass values that I used.

As atoms have their masses, so do molecules. The mass of a molecule is the sum of the masses of the atoms that make it up8.

The most common type of water molecule has a mass of 18 daltons: its lone oxygen atom is 16 amu, and the two hydrogen atoms contribute 1 dalton each.

The most common carbon dioxide molecule has a mass of 44 daltons the carbon atom has a mass of 12 amu, and the two oxygen atoms contribute 16 daltons each. If these molecules have heavier isotopes within them, the mass will vary accordingly.

Ionic compounds like table salt also have molecular mass, although they are made up of ions, not molecules. Here what is important is the ratio of ions to each other and the average atomic weight of the ions in the compound. If two ions appear in a compound, ion A and ion B, then consider the following. Ion A has an average mass of mA and ion B has the average mass of mB. For every x number of ion A in the compound, there is a number of y ions in the compound (i.e. the ratio of ion A to ion B is x:y). The molecular mass of the compound is then:

xmA + ymB

expressed in daltons9.

For example, the chemical calcium chloride. This chemical consists of calcium and chlorine ions at a ratio of 1:2 (there are twice as many chlorine ions as calcium ions). If the chemical was taken from nature (as opposed to being produced in the laboratory from unusual isotopes), then the average calcium nucleus has a mass of 40.078 daltons and the average chlorine nucleus has a mass of 35.453 daltons. The molecular mass of calcium chloride is the average weight of a calcium ion added to twice the average weight of a chlorine ion:

40.078 + (2 × 35.453)

which is equal to 110.984 daltons, the molecular mass of calcium chloride.

A very important quantity in chemistry is the mole. We define the mole of a homogeneous substance, a substance consisting solely of one element or one chemical compound, such as pure oxygen or pure water. A mole of such a substance has as much mass in grams as the substance’s average molecular mass measured in daltons10. One mole of hydrogen has the mass of about one gram. A mole of helium has the mass of about four grams. A mole of water has a mass about 18 grams, and a mole of calcium chloride has a mass of 110.984 grams. The number of grams per mole of a particular substance is called the molar mass of that substance. If the substance is homogeneous, its molar mass in grams per mole will be numerically equal to the average molecular mass of the individual molecules expressed in daltons.


  1. Princeton University website. Unified atomic mass unit. To view, click here. Note that the article states that the abbreviation “amu” for atomic mass unit has been deprecated in favor of the abbreviation “u” or the unit Dalton (abbreviation: Da).
  2. Texas A & M University, Chemistry website, First Year Chemistry Program, Educator Resources, [Isotopes] Introduction. To view, click here. As you can see on the website, protons and neutrons have nearly but not exactly the same mass. Neutrons have slightly more mass than protons. But the differences are very slight, so for many purposes one dalton is a very good approximation for the mass of both the proton and the neutron, although it is insufficient for exact calculations. Technically, one dalton is defined as exactly 1/12 of the mass of a carbon-12 nucleus, one that has six protons and six neutrons (see reference in previous footnote). Also note that the mass of the nucleus can be less than the sum of masses of its protons and neutrons — the difference called the mass defect (that is why the mass of a carbon-12 nucleus is exactly 12 daltons but the sum of the masses of six protons and six neutrons is 12.09565 daltons). To learn more, see the Purdue University Department of Chemistry website, Nuclear Binding Energy. For a list of precise masses of various isotopes and the proportion they occur in nature, see the Scientific Instruments Services website, Exact Masses of the Elements and Isotopic Abundance.
  3. ChemistryUnderstood.com website. How to Find Mass Number. To view, click here.
  4. University of Colorado at Boulder website, Physics 2000. Isotopes. To view, click here
  5. Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility website. Isotopes of the Element Oxygen. To view, click here.
  6. World Nuclear Association website. What is Uranium? How Does it Work? To view, click here.
  7. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Atomic Weight Calculation: Calculating Atomic Weight of an Element with Isotopes. About.com Chemistry website. To view, click here.
  8. Miriam Webster online dictionary. Molecular Mass. To view, click here.
  9. I didn’t find this formula anywhere, I derived it on my own. But I tried it the Biological Magnetic Resonance Data Bank Molecular Mass Calculator, and it works. Actually, there is a mental short cut you can use. If you know the chemical formula of the ionic compound (we discuss chemical formulas in the next post), you can treat the formula as if it described a molecule. The chemical formula for calcium chloride is CaCl2. If this was a molecule, it would have a mass anywhere from 110 to 122 daltons. Based on the natural frequency of isotopes, the average calcium chloride “molecule” would have a mass of 110.984 daltons. But there is no such molecule, only ions. We take this as the molecular mass of calcium chloride nonetheless.
  10. Frostburg State University General Chemistry Online website. Moles confuse me — why are they used? To view, click here. Note that the web page first defines the mole in terms of Avogadro’s number: 6.02 × 1023 molecules. But I was taught to think of a mole as a measure of mass with as many grams as one of its molecules has in daltons, and I find it easier to deal with in this way.

A Physics Primer 4: States of Matter

How do atoms, ions, and molecules behave in the three familiar states of matter — solids, liquids, and gases?

In solids, ions and molecules are fixed in place, so that the distance between each molecule and its neighbors does not change much. The molecules are vibrating, however.

In liquids, the molecules are free to move, but they stay in contact with one another, slipping and sliding over each other. This is like a bowl full of round marbles that is constantly being agitated.

in gases, the molecules fly around freely, limited only by gravity and the shape of the container around them1.


  1. Purdue University Department of Chemistry website. States of Matter. To view, click here.

A Physics Primer 3: How Atoms Constitute Matter

There are currently 114 recognized types of atoms, called elements, the type depending on the number of protons in the nucleus1. The first element, hydrogen, has only one proton in its nucleus. Hydrogen has two, lithium has three, and so on (the number of protons is called the atomic number of the element)1. Of these 114 elements, 91 elements make up almost all substances in the universe in various combinations2. Many familiar substances are made of just one element, substances like graphite and diamond (carbon), nitrogen gas, oxygen gas, neon, aluminum, iron, copper, silver, gold, mercury, lead, and uranium. But most substances are chemically composed of more than one element, and these substances are known as compounds3.

Atoms can combine into compounds in two ways. In the first way, the atom of one element donates electrons to an atom of another element. The donator now has less electrons than protons and becomes positively charged. The recipient ends up with more electrons than protons and becomes negatively charged. Both the donor and the recipient are known as ions (the donor is called an cation and the recipient is called a anion4). Since unlike charges attract, donor and recipient atoms will stick to each other to form a new substance, often a crystal. This is how table salt (chemical name: sodium chloride) is formed: each sodium atom donates one electron to one chlorine atom5.

In the second way, groups of atoms will share electrons among themselves resulting in what is called covalent bonding. The sharing of electrons causes the atoms in the group to stick together. Each group is called a molecule. Examples are water (hydrogen and oxygen) and carbon dioxide (carbon and oxygen)5.

Atoms of the same element can bind to each other as well. The atoms of non-metallic elements can form covalent bonds with each other. Seven such elements form diatomic (two-atom) molecules: hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine6. In metals, the atoms in the metal give up their outer electrons to a sea of electrons that bathe the atoms; the electrons are no longer tied to a particular atom and can wander throughout the metal. It is this electron sea that binds the atoms together in the metal, and this bonding is knows as metallic bonding7.

Each atomic element has its valence number, the maximum number of atoms with whom an atom of that element can bond8. Hydrogen has a valence number of 1 — it can only bond with one other atom at a time. Oxygen has a valence number of 2; it can bond with two atoms. Nitrogen has a valence number of 3, carbon has a valence number of 4. Helium does not bond with other atoms, so its valence number is 0.

Although many molecules are electrically neutral having no net charge, one end of such a molecule can have a positive charge, the other end can have a negative charge. This happens when the electrons in the molecule are spending more time in one atom than they are in another. When this happens, the molecule is called a dipole. Some dipoles are permanent because one atom is attracting electrons more strongly than the others9. Other dipoles are temporary, the result of statistical fluctuations where one atom for a split second just happens to have more electrons about it than the others10. Dipoles give rise to the intermolecular forces that bind molecules together in a solid or in a liquid11. Breaking these intermolecular forces (as occurs during melting and boiling) requires the extra energy known as latent heat. More about latent heat in coming posts12.

Molecules can exist by themselves or they can become ions (that is, have a net charge), in which case they are referred to as polyatomic ions or molecular ions13. An example of this is the fertilizer and explosive ammonium nitrate. It consists of two ions: the ammonium ion, which is the ammonia molecule with an extra hydrogen atom, and the nitrate ion, which is the nitrogen dioxide molecule with an extra oxygen atom14. Like atomic ions, molecular ions have valence numbers. Both ammonium and nitrate both have a valence number of 1. Carbonate and sulfate both have a valence number of 215.

It is interesting that some of the properties that apply to atoms apply as well to molecules. Some atoms are self-contained and electrically neutral. They have little to do with the atoms around them and do not form compounds easily. These are the atoms of the so-called noble gases: helium, neon, argon, xenon, krypton, and radon16. Likewise, some molecules are self-contained and electrically neutral. They also do not enter easily into reactions with other chemicals around them. Carbon dioxide is an example17.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are atoms that, although electrically neutral, jump at the chance to react with other atoms. Sodium, potassium, fluorine, chlorine, are good examples of such atoms, to the extent that it is impossible to find these atoms by themselves in their electrical neutral state in nature18. Likewise, there are electrically neutral molecules that are extremely reactive: the hydroxide molecule for one. These atoms and molecules are known as free radicals19.

We have seen that both atoms and molecules can exist as ions, carrying a net electrical charge, and that these ions are attracted to ions of the opposite charge. Carbonate, nitrate, and sulfate are examples of negative molecular ions. They combine with positive ions to form such compounds as calcium carbonate, magnesium nitrate, and potassium sulfate20.

Molecules can even form parts of larger molecules. A fine example are the numerous protein molecules in your body. Each protein is made up of smaller molecules called amino acids, strung together in an exact order to form the building blocks and the molecular engines of living cells21.

The branch of chemistry that studies carbon-based compounds is called organic chemistry. Organic molecules tend to be much larger than inorganic molecules. Most inorganic molecules do not consist of more than a dozen atoms; organic molecules can consist of thousands of atoms22. A large part of organic chemistry is the study of parts of molecules that tend to give compounds certain specific characteristics, such as alkene, alcohol, ketone, and ester, called functional groups23. Is it possible to consider a functional group to be a molecule within a molecule? In other words, a molecule that plays the role of an atom within a larger molecule?


  1. Georgia State University, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Hyperphysics website, section “Atoms and Elements”. To view, click here. There are actually 118 elements; you can see this on any up-to-date periodic table or by consulting Jefferson Lab’s It’s Elemental website. Four of 118 elements are as yet confirmed — see Wikipedia’s article Timeline of chemical elements discoveries, and scroll down to the section “Unconfirmed discoveries.” This leaves 114 elements confirmed by science. Of these 114 elements, only 91 occur naturally. 23 elements (including technetium, element 43) must be synthesized by humans and last minutes at most before disintegrating into simpler elements.
  2. The Free Dictionary website. Chemical Element. To view, click here. Note that the definition claims there are 92 naturally-occurring elements. There are only 91. They forgot that technetium (element 43) does not occur naturally.
  3. Chemicool website. Definition of Compound. To view, click here.
  4. Note on pronunciation: “Cation” does not rhyme with “nation”, it is pronounced cat-eye-on. “Anion” does not sound like “onion”, it is pronounced an-eye-on.
  5. University of California at Davis ChemWiki website. Ionic and Covalent Bonds. To view, click here.
  6. Princeton University website. Diatomic molecules. To view, click here. Examples of non-diatomic covalent bonds among non-metals include the allotropes of carbon (graphite, diamond, buckyball) and phosphorus (white, red, violet, black)
  7. University of California at Davis ChemWiki website. Metallic Bonds. To view, click here.
  8. Frostburg State University General Chemistry Online website. What is the difference between valence, and number of valence electrons? To view, click here.
  9. Utah Valley University OChemPal website. Dipole Moment. To view, click here.
  10. Master Organic Chemistry website. The Four Intermolecular Forces and How They Affect Boiling Points. To view, click here, then scroll to section 4: “Van der waals Dispersion forces (London forces)”.
  11. Master Organic Chemistry website. The Four Intermolecular Forces and How They Affect Boiling Points. To view, click here.
  12. This post is not ready yet.
  13. Frostburg State University General Chemistry Online website. Polyatomic Ions. To view, click here.
  14. Princeton University website. Ammonium Nitrate. To view, click here.
  15. Helmenstine, Anne Marie. About.com Chemistry website. List of Common Polyatomic Ions. To view, click here.
  16. University of California at Davis ChemWiki website. The Noble Gases. To view, click here.
  17. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, published on the Infoplease website. Carbon Dioxide. To view, click here.
  18. Sodium and potassium are alkali metals, chlorine and fluorine are halogens. For alkali metals, see Bentor, Yinon, Periodic Table: Alkali Metals. ChemicalElements.com website. To view, click here. For halogens, see the Purdue University website Bodner Research Website, The Chemistry of the Halogens. To view, click here.
  19. Australian Research Council, ARC Centre of Excellence for Free Radical Chemistry and Biotechnology website. What Are Free Radicals? To view, click here.
  20. General Certificate of Secondary Education science website. Atomic Structure. To view, click here.
  21. Bailey, Regina, Amino Acid. About.com Biology website. To view, click here.
  22. Personal observation.
  23. Fromm, James Richard, The Concept of Functional Groups. Third Millenium Online Website. To view, click here.

A Physics Primer 2: The Concept of Electric Charge

It was the 6th century B.C. Greek philosopher and scientist Thales of Miletus who discovered an interesting phenomenon when one rubbed amber (a fossilized secretion of ancient trees) with fur: the amber could attract light objects such as straw1. In modern parlance, we would say that the both the amber and the straw were electrically charged. No one knows what electric charge actually is or why it exerts force on other charges around it2. We can only study its behavior.

Scientists in the 18th century sought to explain why electrically charged objects not only attracted but also repelled one another; they posited two types of electric charge — positive and negative. Two objects with like charge (positive and positive, or negative and negative) repelled each other. Two objects with unlike charge attracted each other3.

Much later it was found that electric charge could be traced to the atom itself. Protons are all positively charged, electrons are negatively charged, and neutrons have no charge. All protons and electrons have the same absolute amount of charge, so an atom with the same number of protons and neutrons is electrically neutral4.

When objects having electric charge are at rest, they radiate simple electric fields, which act on other electric charges resembling the way gravity acts on mass. Like the gravitational pull between two masses, the electrical force between two electric charges at rest is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. If you move two charges closer together so that the distance between them becomes only a third of what it was, the force between them will increase nine-fold5.

Interesting things happen when charges move. Our civilization depends on electric current, which usually consists of free electrons traveling through electric wires forming rivers of electricity6. Electric currents generate a second force called the magnetic force, a force that attracts or repels other electric currents7. Whenever moving charges speed up, slow down, or change direction, they generate waves in the electric and magnetic fields around them. These waves, known as electromagnetic radiation, form such familiar phenomena as radio waves, visible light, and X-rays8. More about electromagnetic radiation in a later post.


  1. Watkins, Thayer. The Economic History of Amber, San Jose State University website. To view, click here.
  2. Shpenkov, George P., What the Electric Charge Is. To view, click here.
  3. This began with the work of the French chemist Charles François du Fey (1689 – 1739) and the American scientist Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790). The work of these two men are neatly summarized by the Center for Integrating Research + Learning on the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory website Magnet Lab. Click here to view their summary of Du Fey’s work (starting from the fifth paragraph) and here to view their summary of Franklin.
  4. Ohio State University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry website. Atomic Structure, section “Protons, neutron & electrons”. To view, click here.
  5. Hyperphysics website, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Georgia State University, section “Coulomb’s Law”. To view, click here.
  6. Hyperphysics website, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Georgia State University, section “Electric Current”. To view, click here.
  7. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute website. Introduction to Magnetism and Induced Currents. To view, click here.
  8. Caltech university website. Electromagnetic field of an accelerated charge. To view, click here.

A Physics Primer 1: The Atomic Nature of Matter

The science of climate is all about the substances that make up our planet: the land, the oceans, the atmosphere, the atmospheric gases that influence climate. All these things are made up of atoms, ions, radicals, and molecules, governed by the laws of chemistry and physics. To understand their behavior, we really need to understand atoms and molecules, and that is where our physics primer begins.

It was the ancient Greeks1 and Indians2 who first suspected that all matter was composed of tiny particles called atoms, but scientific confirmation did not come until the 19th century when the English chemist John Dalton (1766–1844) noticed that substances that combine with each other in chemical reactions always combine in exact ratios (for example, two parts hydrogen always combines with one part oxygen to form water). The only way to explain this was to hypothesize that matter was made up of discrete particles that combined in exact ratios3.

In 1909, two English physicists Geiger and Marsden under the direction of the New Zealand-British physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937) ran an experiment in which they shot tiny positively-charged atomic particles called alpha particles through a gold foil and measured their deflections. Most particles were not deflected at all. A few were deflected a couple of degrees. But a handful were deflected 90° or more. This led Rutherford to conclude that most of the volume of the atom is empty space, with its mass and positive charge concentrated in a very small center called the nucleus4. The nucleus is surrounded by much smaller particles, discovered earlier in 1897 by the British physicist J.J. Thompson (1856–1940)5, called electrons that buzz about the nucleus like gnats on a summer day6. Each electron is about 1/1836 of the mass of a proton7.

The nucleus itself is composed of two types of particles: protons8 and neutrons9. Protons and neutrons have about the same mass (the neutron is slightly heavier)10, but the number of protons determines an atom’s element whereas the neutrons just add mass11. The number of electrons flying around the nucleus determines the atom’s current chemical state12. For example, an atomic nucleus might consist of eight protons, ten neutrons, and be surrounded by eight electrons. The eight protons identify the atom as oxygen, the ten neutrons make it heavier than average for an oxygen atom (most oxygen nuclei have only eight neutrons), and eight electrons make the atom electrically neutral but quite ready to react with other atoms.


  1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website, Ancient Atomism, 2005. To view, click here.
  2. Keith, Arthur Berriedale. Indian Logic and Atomism: An exposition of the Nyäaya and Vaicesika Systems, 1921. See Chapter 8: The Philosophy of Nature, p. 208. Viewable at the University of Toronto Libraries website. To view, click here.
  3. Childs, Peter E., John Dalton. Chemistry Explained website. To view, click here.
  4. University of South Florida website. The Gold Foil Experiment. To view, click here
  5. Chemical Heritage Foundation website. Joseph John Thompson. To view, click here.
  6. Contemporary Physics Education Project (CPEP), Nuclear Science — A Guide to the Nuclear Science Wall Chart, chapter 2. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory website. To view, click here.
  7. Ohio State University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry website. Atomic Structure, section “Protons, neutron & electrons”. To view, click here.
  8. Hyperphysics website, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Georgia State University, section “Proton”. To view, click here.
  9. Hyperphysics website, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Georgia State University, section “Neutron”. To view, click here.
  10. Ohio State University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry website. Atomic Structure, section “What does an atom look like?”. To view, click here.
  11. Ohio State University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry website. Atomic Structure, section “How many electrons, protons, and neutrons are contained in an atom?”. To view, click here.
  12. Ohio State University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry website. Atomic Structure, section “How does the structure of an atom relate to its properties?”. To view, click here.

Topic: A Physics Primer

To be able to discuss environmental issues intelligently, you don’t have to have a deep science background. But to understand what is happening on a fundamental level, you really do need to know the science. Some time ago, I decided that for my next blog topic, I would tackle the subject of climate change from a scientific perspective. I am writing for a wide, general-interest audience, and I have no idea how familiar my readers are with the scientific principles I want to discuss. (I’m not a professional scientist myself, and my own scientific knowledge leaves a lot to be desired.) I therefore decided to write a physics primer where those readers who lacked a science background could fill themselves in with what they needed to know, and to which I could refer when I discussed a scientific concept that might not be familiar to everybody.

The project proved far more involved than I ever thought it would be. I thought I would just scribble a few posts and be done with it. I’ve ended up so far with 21 posts, and I’ve only finished six of them (not counting this one). I started in January 2014, it is now July, and I am far, far from finishing. I thought I’d better publish what I have now or it would be a long time before I’d have new material on my blog.

These first six posts are a review of the physical and chemical principles behind the existence of matter: atoms, molecules, ions, charge, mass, how to write chemical formulas and equations. Later posts will discuss energy, heat, and Earth’s climate system.

If you came here via a link, you can navigate between posts by clicking on the arrows that appear above the post heading. The right arrow (→) always points to the next post; the left arrow (←) always points to the previous post. In this particular post, the right arrow is labeled A Physics Primer 1: The Atomic Nature of Matter and points to the next post. The left arrow is labeled Welcome to the Environmental Analyst and points to the home page (that was unintentional, it just worked out that way). To return to the home page of the blog from any blog post, click the “Home” tab at the top of the page.

The posts are heavily footnoted. They don’t necessarily show where I got my information, but they do show that what I write has a basis. I also include additional information and observations in the footnotes, so if you have the time, check them out.

At the time of this writing, July 11, 2014, I have not had my posts reviewed by a professional scientist, so the chances are higher that I included some erroneous information. Be aware of this and don’t hesitate to challenge me if something I wrote doesn’t seem right to you.

While I do hold strong views on environment topics, this part of the discussion should be free of any partisan bias. If you find any, or if you have any other comment, please let me know. Feel free to type your comment on the bottom of the post, or send an email to mhkblogs@gmail.com . All constructive criticism is most welcome!

Delisting the Wolf: My Recommendations

(I’ve added some late postscripts at the end of this post.)

The question before us is whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) should remove the gray wolf in the U.S. from the list of endangered species. As we discussed in previous posts, wolves in Alaska, in the Northern Rocky Mountain distinct population segment, and in the Western Great Lakes distinct population segment are already off the list. Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico and red wolves in North Carolina will continue to be protected.

I concluded in an earlier post that delisting the gray wolf would not affect present wolf populations greatly. Almost all known wolf packs are either already off the list or, in the case of Mexican and red wolves, will continue to be protected regardless. Delisting the gray wolf may prevent new packs from establishing themselves in new areas, because it will be legal to shoot wolves as they travel from established population centers into these new areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is in effect deciding whether to allow wolves to spread naturally or to hinder that spread. Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental organization, voiced these fears as quoted in a story by Northwest Public Radio:

Stone: “With the federal delisting that they are talking about – pulling federal protections from wolves before there are even wolves on the ground in some of the best wolf habitat in the western United States.”

Stone’s offices are in Idaho, where the wolf population last year was nearly 700. She is concerned that wolf hunting in Idaho and Wyoming will keep them from migrating into neighboring states of Utah and Colorado, or expanding their small populations in Oregon and Washington. Those two Northwest states had a combined population of about 100 wolves.1

Most environmental groups are opposed to delisting, and I respect that. But there is an argument for not fighting delisting. If delisting will not destabilize present wolf populations, and I don’t think it will, then perhaps fighting delisting is not the best use of resources, besides making enemies we don’t need to make. There is also another aspect we need to be concerned about. Despite our disagreements with the Obama Administration, it has been far more sympathetic to environmental concerns than any Republican administration would have been. Why do environmental organizations insist on taking the Administration to court when they could be striving together with the government to reach common goals? Aren’t we frittering away historic opportunities to work with the Federal Government, opportunities that if a Republican president is ever elected are not likely to return for four or maybe eight years, if then?

I think environmental groups should cut a deal with this Administration. They should agree to drop all lawsuits opposing wolf delisting. In return, the Administration should commit itself to the goal of establishing five new major wolf population centers and a total population in the 48 states of 20,000 wolves by 2030 (I’m just suggesting those numbers; maybe there are better ones.). Next, everyone needs to work closely with states to make this happen. I suggest that the Federal Government agree to cede Federal lands to states in return for their cooperation.

Several government agencies must get on board for this happen. Most important are the Fish and Wildife Service and the Department of Agriculture’s APHIS Wildlife Services, responsible for predator control. The White House is essential to provide political backing in what is sure to be a controversial initiative. State governments must be brought into the process (although whether this is possible depends a great deal on local political conditions).

Environmental groups are critical as well — they provide the impetus, the will, the enthusiasm, the energy for all this to happen. They can organize and energize the popular support necessary to move the project forward and provide cover to politicians to get the job done.

We environmentalists must be realistic. We may not be able to get everything we want. But we can accomplish much more working together with the government than we can constantly fighting it in court. With all the legal action being pursued in the past ten years, has a single new wolf population center been established?

(Of course, the Federal Government can give a flat no, in which case my argument goes out the window. If then environmental groups think they can win in court, then perhaps they should continue suing. But they need to perform a careful cost-benefit analysis to avoid wasting their time, resources, and their supporters’ money.)

Where can we establish new wolf population centers? This is the map put out by Defenders of Wildlife that I had published in a previous post2:

Wolf Range North America

Note the red-striped areas on the map in the west and northeast which indicate suitable wolf habitat. Wolves can be introduced to California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Texas, New York, and Maine, and new ranges can be established in Washington State, Oregon, Wyoming, Arizona, and New Mexico. The most important criteria in choosing new areas is where wolves can make a significant contribution to biodiversity. If introducing wolves will enable more species of animals and plants to thrive, then the initiative is worth doing, otherwise what’s the point? After that, we need to consider the potential for conflict with humans and how we can alleviate such conflict. What’s the human population of the area, how many pets do they have, how much livestock are they raising? Last but not least, we need to consider the amount of political opposition we are likely to encounter, and we are likely to encounter a great deal.

Perhaps the Wyoming model may best alleviate conflicts with humans, despite my criticism of Wyoming in a previous post. Wyoming has zoned the state into wolf habitat and non-wolf habitat. Wolves in wolf habitat can only be killed during hunting season in the fall by licensed hunters, whereas wolves elsewhere may be shot by anyone at anytime3. I assume people know enough not to grow livestock in wolf habitat (and if they do, they must be prepared to accept the consequences), and wolves won’t last long enough to attack livestock in non-wolf habitat. Now we can argue about the propriety of the amount of land set aside for wolves (about 16.5% of the area of the entire state, leaving 83.5% of Wyoming off limits to wolves4), but I think the model can work to bring problems with wolves down to a minimum. At the time of this post, environmental organizations have sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its delisting of the wolf in Wyoming, demanding that wolves in Wyoming be returned to Federal protection4. Whether Wyoming can successfully manage its wolf population without Federal intervention, only time will tell.

Living in New York State (Brooklyn, actually), I would like to see the wolf return to Adirondacks Park. Adirondacks Park is huge, over 6 million acres, and occupies a good part of northern New York. It is hard to see how there is not enough room in this large area for several wolf packs. Here is a map taken from Wikipedia showing the location of Adirondacks Park with New York State5.

Adirondacks Park

There has been talk of returning the wolf to the Adirondacks before, although not recently. In December 1999, the Adirondack Citizens Advisory Committee released a report on the feasibility of the reintroduction of the wolf to the Adirondacks. The report concluded that although Adirondacks Park could support a wolf population, human development would threaten the wolves’ long term prospects6. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason not to go forward. We need to experiment; the only way we can know if wolves can thrive in the Adirondacks is to try. I suspect that wolves, who as a species have a well-deserved reputation for being tremendously resilient7, will be able to withstand human development and will thrive. (New York State’s constitution does guarantee that the Adirondacks will be forever wild8). In fact, there is an organization called the Northeast Ecological Recovery Society that is dedicated, among other things, to the restoration of the wolf to the Adirondacks. You can read what they have to say about this on their website by clicking here. On there website, be sure to click on their essays “The Missing Piece” and “How Deer Benefit.”

There are two groups who have been most outspoken in their opposition to further wolf recovery, livestock producers and hunters, who resent the loss of wild game to wolves. I can particularly sympathize with individual ranchers who feel anxious and threatened by the presence of wolves (see the video on the oregonwolfeducation.org website by clicking here). These people should have the right to shoot any wolf that threatens their property, including any wolf that strays within 1000 yards of any livestock herd. Furthermore, if wildlife scientists determine that the amount of wild game in a particular area is not large enough to support the resident wolf population and that these wolves will likely turn on livestock as an alternative, government should cull the wolves so that doesn’t happen.

But what I object to is livestock producers having any say in how wilderness areas are managed. Wilderness areas should be managed for the benefit of the natural ecosystem that exists within it and not to protect any narrow human economic interest. To do otherwise is to defeat the whole purpose of having a wilderness. Adding wolves to wilderness areas enhances the ecosystem and brings it closer to the state it was before humans came. If wolves leave the wilderness and cause problems, that will need to be dealt with, but that is no reason not to reintroduce wolves in the first place.

Now for the hunters. I have no public objection to hunting, although I would never do it myself. Furthermore, I have no problem with setting aside lands as hunting preserves, semi-wild places which are managed to maximize numbers of wild game and exclude predators. But true wilderness areas should be kept wild and not managed to please humans. By all means, let people hunt in the wilderness, but they must do it on nature’s terms, not theirs. That means they must learn to compete fairly with natural predators who have as much right to hunt there as they do.

Hunters complain that wolves are decimating elk and deer herds, but that might not be true at all. True, wolves do reduce the elk and deer population, but that’s fine as long as the population remains at sustainable levels (however, if the population can no longer sustain the wolves and the wolves are forced to leave the wilderness to attack livestock, then culling the wolves becomes necessary). In fact, lower elk and deer population numbers can be better for the ecosystem as a whole, as has been shown in Yellowstone9. There is no obligation to keep elk and deer numbers high just to please human hunters.

To illustrate the ludicrousness of killing wolves in wilderness areas just to maximize game animals and please human hunters, I’ll give you a argument in the economic sphere. Microsoft completes with Apple, would it have been OK for Bill Gates to shoot Steven Jobs? Would it be alright for Ford to firebomb General Motors production plants? How about Walmart burning down Target stores?

Of course these are crimes. We even have laws prohibiting practices that are deemed monopolistic or anticompetitive even if they are not violent. Similarly, we should not penalize the wolf for outcompeting humans. If humans want to hunt game, let them outcompete the wolf. Let them learn to track elk and deer and find them before the wolves do. When you hunt in a wilderness area, don’t expect game to be served to you on a silver platter, work for it, just like the wolves do! Hunt, but compete fairly. Do not try to establish species monopolies.

These are only my ideas. Defenders of Wildlife has put together an excellent plan for the recovery of wolves that does a much better job than I have at making the case for wolves, entitled Places for Wolves: A Blueprint for Wolf Restoration and Recovery in the Lower 48 States which you can read by clicking here.

In the meantime, we can continue to learn from the populations of wolves we already have. How do areas with wolves within a state compare with those without wolves — are they really more biologically diverse? Do they appear more ecologically robust and resilient? How well are the states managing their packs? Are they successful in minimizing wolf-human conflicts? Do the humans who live in proximity to the wolves feel comfortable or do they feel threatened? What we learn in states with wolf populations will be invaluable in returning this remarkable keystone species to its rightful place in the American landscape.


It seems that the Idaho legislature proved more determined than I thought it was to decimate its wolf population. For details, see the post in my opinion blog: Wolves in Idaho.

In the May 2014 issue of Discover Magazine, there is an excellent article by Christie Wilcox, Elk Vanishing Act. Unfortunately, the article is only available online to subscribers. The article describes how biologists have show that wolves are not the main cause of decline of elk in Yellowstone National Park. While they prey on elk, their contribution is rather small. A much larger contribution are grizzlies who are turning to elk when their previous source of protein, cutthroat trout, were out-competed by the illegally introduced lake trout. Also to blame are severe droughts in the park (possibly the result of climate change) which reduced the amount of grass available to the elk. The article cites the work of biologists Scott Creel, Arthur Middleton, Shannon Barber-Meyer, and Jennifer Fortin.


  1. Northwest Public Radio website, US Fish and Wildlife Propose to Delist Gray Wolf. To view, click here.
  2. Defenders of Wildlife, Places for Wolves: A Blueprint for Restoration and Recovery in the Lower 48 States, 2006, p. 15. To view the document,click here.
  3. Wyoming Game and Fish Department website, Wolves in Wyoming. To view, click here.
  4. Lawsuit filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia: Defenders of Wildlife et al. vs. Sally Jewall et al. and Safari Club International et al. Plaintiffs’ Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, p. 9. To view, click here. The 83.5% area not designated as wolf habitat excludes the Seasonal Wolf Trophy Game Management Area (SWTGMA, see footnote no. 3 for an explanation).
  5. Wikipedia, Adirondack Park. To view, click here.
  6. Paquet, Paul C., Strittholt, J.R., Staus, N.L., Wolf Reintroduction Feasibility in the Adirondack Park. Conservation Biology Institute, 1999. To read, click here. The Conservation Biology Institute has a summary of this paper which you can read by clicking here. Defenders of Wildlife also has an excellent discussion on its website which you can read by clicking here.
  7. I base this statement on several observations. First, on a statement on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website Gray Wolf (Canis lupis) Biologue, “Second only to humans in adapting to climate extremes, gray wolves once ranged from coast to coast and from Alaska to Mexico in North America. They were absent from the Southeast, which was occupied by red wolves (Canis rufus), and from the large deserts of the Southwest.” (Click here to read.) Now that’s a huge territory, encompassing many biomes: woodlands, plains, mountains, tundra. This testifies to the wolf’s remarkable adaptability. Second, it took a huge effort on the part of Federal and state governments to eradicate the wolf by the mid-20th century. For an account of the extermination drive against the wolves, see the website of the PBS show Nature, “Wolf Wars: America’s Campaign to Eradicate the Wolf” which you can read by clicking here. Third, wolves have come back quickly in areas where they have reappeared. See the population graph showing the growth of wolf population in the Northern Rockies region here, and the chart showing the growth of the wolf population in the Western Great Lakes region here. Wolves are hard to exterminate and rebound easily.
  8. New York State Constitution, Article XIV, Section 1. To view, click here.
  9. See the article Ecological Benefit of Wolves by the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club, which you can read by clicking here, and the video Predators by Bill Ripple which you can view by clicking here.

Delisting the Wolf from the Endangered Species List

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) began wolf conservation in the 1970’s1, and by the 1990’s numbers of wolves started to increase sharply2. By the year 2000, the FWS proposed delisting the wolf in most of the lower 48 states3 (the wolf was never listed as endangered in Alaska4, and has never inhabited Hawaii5). Environmental groups were strongly opposed6, and by filing suit succeeded in getting the proposal overturned by the courts7. FWS continued to try to delist the wolf for the next decade, until its proposals to delist the wolf in both Western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountain distinct population segments (DPS) stuck in 2011 and has not been overturned8,9.

At the present time, the vast majority of wolves living in the United States are not listed as endangered:

  • Alaskan wolves, the majority of wolves in America, were never considered endangered and were never on the list4.
  • The Western Great Lakes DPS was delisted in January 201210.
  • The Northern Rocky Mountains DPS was delisted in May 2011, except for wolves in Wyoming, which were delisted in September 201211.
  • Mexican gray wolves in the Blue Range Recovery Area will continue to be protected12, as will red wolves in Eastern North Carolina13.

When we are discussing delisting all other wolves in the U.S., we really are talking about very few individuals. To my knowledge, there are no documented packs living in the wild outside of the main population segments14. Delisting all wolves in the U.S. might hinder them from spreading out from the main population centers (because they could be shot on sight) and establishing new packs in new habitats. However, existing wolf packs, having already been delisted, would continue intact, unless the states that host them gave carte blanche to hunters to eradicate them. While that is theoretically possible, that would violate the Memoranda of Agreement signed between the FWS and several states15. The FWS has stated its intention that should it believe that the gray wolf population was again in jeopardy, it would once again place the population under protection16. If this is the case, the question becomes: do we want wolves to spread naturally to other areas, or do we want them confined to the regions they currently inhabit?

Wolves engender visceral feelings on both sides of the issue. They are beloved by environmentalists, ecologists, animal rights activists, and wildlife lovers, but feared and hated by ranchers, cattlemen, livestock farmers, hunters who don’t like competing with wolves, many pet owners, and folks who don’t realize that wolves do not hunt humans17. There are people out there who really don’t like wolves, and they are pushing for protections to be removed. On top of that are all the people who hate government regulation and federal meddling in local affairs. Those who want wolves to play more prominent roles in the American landscape may face fierce opposition. We need to decide if fighting delisting is really a good use of resources or if we can advocate for wolves in a more effective way. More on that in my next post.

But I can understand why environmentalists do not want wolves to have to rely on the tender mercies of state governments. Take Wyoming, for instance. In Wyoming, wolves are classified two ways. Wolves who live near Yellowstone in the northwest corner of the state are designated as “trophy animals” and can be shot during hunting season by licensed hunters up to a certain quota. Wolves unlucky to find themselves in the rest of the state are designated “predatory animals” [well, what else are they?] and can be shot at any time by anybody. In other words, wolves are defined by how they can be legally shot by people, not by their place in nature, nor by the ecological services they provide18. Please don’t get me wrong. Killing wolves is an essential part of managing a wolf population that is outgrowing its habitat. It’s the attitude I don’t like.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh on Wyoming. For the 2013 hunting season, Wyoming cut its wolf quota in half from 52 to 26 animals in order to stabilize the population at 160 wolves19. Wyoming had agreed with the FWS to keep a minimum of 100 animals20, so perhaps Wyoming is proving responsible in its practices after all. If so, all power to them.

Montana is another state I wonder about. On the website of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), there is also no mention of the wolf’s ecological role. Rather, department aims are stated clearly21:

The focus will be on ensuring that Montana’s conservation and management program keeps the wolf off the federal endangered species list while pursuing a wolf population level below current numbers to manage impacts on game populations and livestock.

In other words, Montana is less concerned with maintaining healthy ecosystems than with keeping the federal government off its back and minimizing losses to the animals we raise and hunt. Apparently, the federal government is needed to keep Montana honest. One wonders, though, what will happen if a Conservative Republican becomes president. Will Montana cavalierly cast aside its new-found responsibility towards wolves?

Idaho is a little better. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game website shows a little more respect for wolves than Wyoming and Montana. This is the first paragraph of the Idaho Wolf Conservation and Management Plan under the Executive Summary heading22:

The goal of this conservation and management plan is to ensure the long-term survival of wolves in Idaho while minimizing wolf-human conflicts that result when wolves and people live in the same vicinity. Conservation of wolves requires management. Management for wolves means ensuring adequate numbers for long-term persistence of the species as well as ensuring that landowners, land managers, other citizens, and their property are protected. The Idaho Constitution, Article 1, Section 1, states: “All men are by nature free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing and protecting property; pursuing happiness and securing safety.” The Governor’s Office of Species Conservation shall begin immediate discussions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to define how the rights guaranteed by Article 1, Section 1, will be preserved and recognized. Without management, conservation is overcome by conflict. The State of Idaho is on the record asking the federal government to remove wolves from the state by the adoption in 2001 of House Joint Memorial No. 5. The position reflected in House Joint Memorial No. 5 continues to be the official position of the State of Idaho. However, in order to use every available option to mitigate the severe impacts on the residents of the State of Idaho, the state will seek delisting and manage wolves at recovery levels that will ensure viable, self-sustaining populations.

House Joint Memorial No. 5 refers to a resolution passed by the Idaho state legislature in 200123 and revised in 200524. I found the original version rather petulant, but the revised version is considerably more balanced. Still, the 2005 version shows a state government representing a constituency that is very wary of wolves and suspicious of Federal power. Nevertheless, if the Idaho Fish and Game Department can continue its work without interference, Idaho’s wolves should do well.

In my next post, I’ll discuss my own recommendations regarding wolf conservation.


  1. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Origins of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “1973 — The Endangered Species Act is passed by Congress to protect endangered plants and animals. Building upon legislation passed in 1966 and 1969, the new law expands and strengthens efforts to protect species domestically and internationally. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service assume responsibility for administering the Act.” To view, click here. Four subspecies of wolves were included in the new Endangered Species Act in 1974 (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website, Canis lupus Gray Wolf. To view, click here.).
  2. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolf (Canis Lupus): Wolf Numbers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan (Excluding Isle Royale) 1976 to 2003. To view, click here. U.S. Fish and Wildlife service website, Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains: News, Information, and Rocovery Status Reports, Figure 3 (graph), center column. To view, click here.
  3. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website,Archive of Previous Federal Actions Affecting Gray Wolf ESA Status: July 13, 2000 Proposal to Reclassify/Delist the Gray Wolf in the Lower 48 States. To view, click here.
  4. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Wolf Recovery Under the Endangered Species Act, p. 2, section “Wolves in Alaska and Canada.” To view, click here.
  5. I came to this conclusion through deduction, although I did find a website page I believe once belonged to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources but is now obsolete, entitled Are there bears or wolves in Hawaii? To view, click here.
  6. According to a Sierra Club press release, the Sierra Club joined 18 other environmental organizations in a lawsuit filed in Federal court in Oregon opposing the delisting (click here to view. Regarding the lawsuit, see next note.). A lawyer friend I have was kind enough to obtain the docket information which lists 17 plaintiffs (unfortunately, the docket is only available on a secure website that requires a password). In alphabetical order they are:American Lands Alliance, Animal Protection Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Forest Watch, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, Help Our Wolves Live, Humane Society of the United States, Klamath Forest Alliance, Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Minnesota Wolf Alliance, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, RESTORE the North Woods, Sierra Club, Sinapu, and Wildlands Project.
  7. U.S. District Court, District of Oregon. Defenders of Wildlife; et al. v. Secretary, United States Department of the Interior; et al., civil no. 03-1348-JO. Click here to read. U.S. District Court, District of Vermont. National Wildlife Federation, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Maine Wolf Coalition, Environmental Advocates of New York, and Maine Audubon Society v. Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior, United States Department of the Interior, and Steven Williams, Director, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, File no. 1:03-CV-340. Click here to read.
  8. Regarding wolves in the Western Great Lakes region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolves Delisted in Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment. To view, click here. The delisting was challenged by civil action no. 13-00186 filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, The Humane Society of the United States, Born Free USA, Help Our Wolves Live, and Friends of Animals and Their Environment v. Kenneth Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, United States Department of the Interior, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, but to my knowledge has not yet been ruled on. To view the complaint, click here.
  9. On April 2, 2009, the FWS issued a rule delisting wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct Population Segment. It was set aside in two lawsuits filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana (CV 09-77-M-DWM and CV 09-82-M-DWM. To read them, click here.). As reported on the website of the newspaper Missoulian in an article entitled Feds, wildlife groups, agree to delist Montana wolves by Rob Chaney (click here to read), the Federal Government negotiated an agreement with many (but not all) environmental groups in 2011 to delist Northern Rocky Mountain wolves, and FWS was able to reissue the rule. For the FWS version of events, see the Federal Government’s regulations.gov website, Identification of Northern Rocky Mountain Population of Gray Wolf as Distinct Population Segment (to view, click here). Environmental groups dissatisfied with the agreement tried to overturn it with two more Federal lawsuits filed in Montana (11-70-M-DWM and 11-71-M-DWM, which you can read by clicking here), but they were not successful, and the defeat was upheld on appeal (to read, click here).
  10. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolves Delisted in Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment. To view, click here.
  11. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains: News, Information, and Recovery Status Reports, section “Recent Actions:”, center column, May 2011 and August 2012 (Wyoming). To view, click here
  12. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains: News, Information, and Recovery Status Reports, section “Recent Actions:”, center column, June 2013. To view, click here
  13. There are no proposals to delist the red wolf. See the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website Red Wolf Recovery Program by clicking here.
  14. This is my conclusion after searching for literature on wolf packs in the U.S. outside the main population centers and not finding any. Please correct me if you have information to the contrary.
  15. As listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains: News, Information, and Recovery Status Reports, section “Memorandums of Agreement” (click here to view). With Montana: Cooperative Agreement between U.S. FIsh and Wildlife Service, Region 6, and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (to view, click here). With Idaho: Memorandum of Agreement Between the Secretary of the Interior and the State of Idaho (to view, click here). With Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming: Memorandum of Understanding: Protection of Genetic Diversity of Northern Rocky Mountains Gray Wolves (to view, click here).
  16. Statement on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains: News, Information, and Recovery Status Reports, center column: “The Service and our partners will monitor wolves in the region for at least 5 years to ensure that the population’s recovered status is not compromised, and if relisting is ever warranted, we will make prompt use of the Act’s emergency listing provisions.” Click here to view.
  17. See these websites that support the delisting of wolves. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, NCBA, PLC, Call for Full Delisting of Wolves Nationwide (to view, click here). OregonWolfEducation.org (property owners’ website. Their video is particularly good. To view, click here.). Big Game Forever (hunters’ website. See their wolf video on the bottom of the page. To view, click here.). Save Elk (hunters’ website. To view, click here.). Lobo Watch (hunters’ website. See their page on wolf reintroductions. To view, click here). The American Sheep Industry Association hasn’t come out in favor of delisting on its website, but it does support the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency, which engages in predator control, and it does carry a news story about wolf predation of sheep in Idaho, which indicates that it is concerned about wolf predation. Click here to view.
  18. Wyoming Game and Fish Department website, Wolves in Wyoming. To view, click here.
  19. The Billings Gazette newspaper, Hunters close in on 2013 Wyoming wolf hunt limit, October 29, 2013, Associated Press. To read, click here.
  20. Wyoming Game and Fish Department website, Wyoming and U.S. Department of the Interior Wolf Management Agreement Fact Sheet. To read, click here.
  21. Montana, Fish, Wildlife & Parks website, Wolf Program. To read, click here.
  22. Idaho Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, 2002, p 4. To read, click here.
  23. Idaho State Legislature, House Joint Memorial No. 5, First regular session — 2001. Click here to read.
  24. Idaho State Legislature, House Joint Memorial No. 5, First regular session — 2005. Click here to read.